By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida, May 11 (Reuters) - An elated Rory McIlroy ended an erratic week at the Players Championship by matching his lowest ever score at the tournament on Sunday, confirmation that his game was "heading in the right direction."
The Northern Irishman finally came to terms with the front nine at the TPC Sawgrass, which had given him all sorts of problems in the first three rounds, as he piled up a total of eight birdies and two bogeys to fire a six-under-par 66.
McIlroy continued his domination of the tricky homeward loop, recording birdies on the last three holes for a second consecutive day, to climb into the top 10 with a nine-under total of 279.
"I obviously finished the round off well. I feel very comfortable on the back nine here. I just played the front nine a little better today and it ended up in shooting a lower score," the 25-year-old from Holywood told reporters after coming home in five-under 31.
"Overall, it's been another solid week, another back-door top 10 as I like to call them. It's getting close. I'm playing really well, I'm playing solid. Things are heading in the right direction."
Making his fifth appearance in the PGA Tour event widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major, double major winner McIlroy had struggled on the front nine in the three previous rounds this week, running up an aggregate of nine over par.
At one point on Friday, it seemed unlikely that he would make the cut but he birdied four of his last seven holes on the back nine to advance right on the number.
"Any time you shoot 66, you move up a lot of spots on the leaderboard," smiled McIlroy, who also shot a 66 in the opening round here last year on the way to a tie for eighth place.
"I think I was 120th at one point in this golf tournament on Friday afternoon, so to go from there to finishing in the top 10 is a good effort."
Asked to assess where his game needed improving with the year's second major, the U.S. Open, fast approaching, McIlroy replied: "Limit the mistakes.
"Just keep the real big numbers off the card and these bogey runs that I seem to be getting on. Just kind of keep it a little tighter, whenever I don't quite have my 'A' game and that's really it.
"But as I've been saying the last few weeks, I'm seeing enough really good golf in there to be really positive going into the sort of main stretch of the season."
The U.S. Open will be held at Pinehurst in North Carolina from June 12-15. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)